The following essay by National Book Critics Circle member Afaa M. Weaver on John Edgar Wideman’s “Brothers and Keepers,” a finalist for the 1984 NBCC Award in Nonfiction, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.
In an afternoon when I was longing for the past, I picked out a film from my collection of videos that had been sitting in the closet for some time. The film is a biographical account of The Temptations, the group that emerged from the urban core that I also know as home, black and poor working class communities. In their case it was Detroit, and in mine it was Baltimore. As I watched the film, I thought of John Edgar Wideman’s remarkable memoir, which begins with his Sunday afternoon ritual of listening to this same music.The film is sad in places, the story of rising and falling trajectories, of the all too human challenges that wait for any of us, no matter the race, but which can seem singular in a peculiar way for black folks. I imagine the music is for Wideman what it is for me, a way of touching the spirit’s fire.
In Baltimore, Milton Avenue is far from what it was in the late fifties before the riots, and just after the riots. In 1968, the year of my high school graduation, it was one of many ribbons of fire wrapping around black communities in the hot spring of Dr. King’s assassination and later in the summer. The corners of these ribbons of fire were where we stood on Saturday nights, pretending to be The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Delfonics, or any of the groups that sang their way onto the covers of LP’s, the radios, and the televisions in the small houses of the urban poor. It was the time also that many of us went off to mostly white colleges and universities, some of us wooed because of test scores that seemed exemplary for black folk inside these ribbons of fire. Some of us did well in these places, and others of us were called back to the places we knew best or some tangent to home. There were a few like John Edgar Wideman, who not only did well but won awards that took them higher, such as his Rhodes scholarship.
We are the ones who walked into Dr. King’s wide way of promise, and alongside and behind us are relatives and friends who could not stay the course, who were called away to one side or another by the various things I’d like to say are the soul’s baggage. Like Wideman, I cannot abandon those people who line the past that I love, no matter what they do. It is this sense of wholeness as a black man working in the world of American letters that held me entranced while reading Brothers and Keepers In the world of black literary workers, I have found the works of other black folk to be the sense of community I have so often needed while walking this path of promise, especially when it seems like a long lonely walk with no familiar faces alongside me. The faces of the familiar are caught all too often in places with little promise.
My son spent time in a Maryland county correction center for a series of misdemeanors, including breaking a trespassing law in Baltimore county, one of a set of laws that were passed for the express purpose of forming a net of legislation that would facilitate a process for pulling black men into the correctional system. Since the late sixties, young black men and women have become surplus labor in the cities that have gone from industrial hubs serving the working class to service oriented urban economies or the mischievous spaces of unemployment, all of which have made these young people prey for the drug industry. There are always human frailties and fault lines in character. There will be success stories from places where most people seem to fail, and vice versa, but the playing field was severely tipped toward the negative when the American economy shifted in the late sixties and left the cities scarred and abandoned.
In the most human of ways, the youngest siblings and those who were the “only” child are often the most vulnerable. So it seemed to be with Wideman’s brother and with my son, who is my only child. Neither one is the menace American society imagines when they think of black men and women who are or have been incarcerated. In his mid-thirties and working a job, my son can turn his head a certain way and still be very much the little boy.
It is not just my son. It is my brother. It is a group of my cousins. It is a group of sons and daughters of friends. It is a group of my in-laws from three marriages. These are black people who grew in the places where I grew, and who had the struggles I had and still have. Some have prospered. Some have died. Two in particular come to mind because they died so young. One keeled over on his front steps in his mid twenties, and the other one day turned to his mother and said, “Mama, I’m going upstairs to take a nap.” He fell into the deep sleep back to the origin of consciousness. Gone home, as older black folk used to say.
I like to think Wideman refuses to let go for the same reason I refuse to let go, which is to hold out the hope of being a model for those who want to live. Yet, for me, holding on has to mean embracing the difficult places on this path of promise and steering away from the sirens that sing glory to the negative ways we can be. Reminiscing can be dangerous for those of us black men who survive and go on to prosper. Sitting in his study as an accomplished man of letters born in a place that is a hallway of desperation for many, Wideman has to both claim his place and maintain his familial love, indeed his responsibility, as an older brother.
It is the power of a book to be able to affirm life this way. The reader comes to it and feels a sense of his self, some recognition that lets him both know he is not alone and that perseverance is not only possible but necessary.
In Philadelphia where Wideman attended University of Pennsylvania and became the second African American to win a Rhodes scholarship, teenage pranks have included turning one-way street signs around the other way so that the intended becomes the opposite. It’s emblematic of the turning around many of us experienced on the path of promise. Nothing would have made Wideman’s mother happier than to see Baby Bru follow big brother John to some secure and safe place in success, but there is some unknown set of hands that turns the directions around for all of us at times, as those of us who are sitting at the traffic light have these constant decisions to make, some minute and some major, about how to be in life, how to know these new spaces.
When we can create these spaces between the pages of a book, these spaces become places to hold onto in the wider path known to every human body, and it is then that our writing lives have produced a valuable thing.
John Edgar Wideman talks to Laura Miller at Salon:
Wideman on the language of Homewood